Berkeley’s RISC-V Wants to Be Free

New RISC Processor for SoC Developers is Yours for the Taking

by Jim Turley

“There are two major products that came from Berkeley: LSD and Unix. We don't believe this to be a coincidence.”Jeremy S. Anderson.

Ready for some radical, left-field (not to say left-wing) thinking? Believe in free love, sharing, and open markets? Step right this way. We’ve got something for you.

Oh, goody. It’s another new microprocessor instruction set.

The great minds at the University of California at Berkeley (that’s “Cal” to insiders) have added a lot to our community over the years. Berkeley was the source of some early RISC processor research and the birthplace of Sun’s famous SPARC processor. And its Big Kahuna, Dr. David A. Patterson, PhD., is professor (and former chair) of Computer Science at Berkeley, as well as being an IEEE and ACM Fellow and recipient of the John von Neumann Medal. You may know him as the Patterson in Hennessy & Patterson, authors of the authoritative computer design bible. A real computer nerd, in other words.

 

VISC Processor Secrets Revealed

Soft Machines Uses Combination of Tricks to Improve Performance

by Jim Turley

Still trying to juggle those flaming chainsaws? Splendid, because now we’re going to see how it’s done.

Last week we introduced Soft Machines and its VISC processor, a new CPU design that runs native ARM code even though it’s not an ARM processor. Soft Machines says VISC can also be tailored to run x86 code, Java code, or just about anything else the company decides is worthwhile. It’s a tabula rasa microprocessor: able to run just about anything you throw at it.

Its other major trick is that it can extract more single-thread performance out of a given binary program than any other CPU. And do so without expending a horrendous number of transistors or consuming planetary levels of energy. Let’s start with that part.

 

New Processor Promises It All

Soft Machines’ VISC Processor Takes an Unorthodox Approach

by Jim Turley

Excuse me while I juggle these flaming chainsaws. While riding a unicycle on a tightrope crossing over Niagara Falls. Blindfolded. Challenging enough for ya?

That’s essentially what a new company called Soft Machines is attempting. It’s a new firm with an entirely new microprocessor design that is taking on the two toughest challenges in the business: how to increase performance while reducing power, and how to run programs written for other processors. Oh, and they’re competing with ARM for embedded RISC processor cores. And then they’ll be taking on Intel and AMD with x86 processors. Challenging enough for ya?

It’s not every day you get to see a brand new microprocessor company. What do you think this is – 1998? Yet Soft Machines thinks it’s cracked the secret code to making embedded processors that are both fast and small, quick yet power-efficient, new yet totally compatible with existing binary code.

 

No Moore for MEMS

Sensors Stay Steady

by Kevin Morris

On April 19, 1965, Electronics magazine ran an article called “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits.” It was written by an engineer from Fairchild Semiconductor, and it contained a simple prediction that turned out to be the trend that changed the world. Gordon Moore’s article is the reference point for the explosive growth in semiconductor capability that has lasted for almost fifty years now.

In that same year, there was another article in that same magazine describing a device invented by Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse Labs that combined a tungsten rod over a transistor to form a “microscopic frequency selective device” - the very first MEMS device. The device was later patented as the “Resonant Gate Transistor.”

So - MEMS and logic transistors have both been around for almost fifty years. And, since MEMS and logic transistors are fabricated in the same factories, using the same techniques, and used in the same systems, there is a natural temptation to draw correlations between them.

 

Apple and Serious Security: NOT an Oxymoron

Cryptographic Processor Has Utility Well Beyond Apple Pay

by Bruce Kleinman, FSVadvisors

I know most of you read the first few words of the title up to the colon and thought, “Oh jeez, he’s back on his Serious Security Soapbox and using the Apple celebrity photo hack as a cautionary tale.” Hardly. And lest anyone think I’ve been hard on Apple of late vis-à-vis their eponymous smart watch, I am going to build a veritable security fortress using the iPhone 6.

Let’s start with backup, as in backing up your data, as in that REALLY important thing that most people cannot be bothered with. I’ve taken backup VERY seriously since WAY back for the purely practical reason that storage media weren’t at all reliable:

  • I started backing up paper tape the first time one of my programs was shredded by a jam in the tape reader
  • I started backing up tape storage the first time one of my tape cartridges unspooled
  • I started backing up floppies the first time I left one on top of the monitor, which at the time were things called “cathode ray tubes” that emitted magnetic fields
  • I started backing up hard drives immediately, because those early 10 MB [sic] units experienced head crashes if you sneezed in their vicinity
 

Are You an Android or a Robot?

Business Models Collide, Over and Over Again

by Jim Turley

There’s an old saying that programming is – ahem – like practicing the world’s oldest profession. In both cases, there is no inventory, no fixed overhead costs, and no actual goods sold. Instead, the “product” is really a service. Both depreciate rapidly and both are labor-intensive. Most of all, practitioners get to sell their product to one customer and then sell it again to somebody else. With no cost-of-goods-sold (COGS), every sale should be pure profit, right? And yet, people in neither profession ever seem to get rich. What’s wrong with that business model?

I can’t tell if Android is doing really well or if it’s heading into a downward spiral. On one hand, Android has taken the embedded world by storm, powering all sorts of new devices. What could be better than a free operating system, and one packed with features, too? And open source? With lots of support? Sign me up!

 

Grabbing Keys Out of Thin Air

Rambus’s AES Crypto IP Resists DPA Attacks

by Jim Turley

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

You have got to be kidding me. I mean, I’m an engineer. I know how stuff works. And you’re telling me you can somehow snag my computer’s encryption keys out of thin air? No way. No. @%$#-ing. Way.

Way.

I’ve seen it happen. I didn’t believe it at first, but there’s nothing quite like a live demonstration to make you a convert. It’s time to stock up on tinfoil hats. Here’s the background: Practically every computer, cell phone, tablet, cable TV decoder, satellite box, smartcard, modern passport, or other gizmo uses encryption in some way.

 

Is It Time for Post-ARM Already?

New APS23 and APS25 Processors Designed for “Third Wave” of Computing Devices

by Jim Turley

If you could sell 700 million units of the product you’re designing right now, would that be a success?

Seven hundred million is a big number. That’s about the total number of cars sold by all the automakers in the world combined over the past ten years. Or more than double the number of copies of Windows 8, or the number of hamburgers McDonald’s flips out in four months. As I said, a big number.

You’d think that any company responsible for such impressive product movement would be well known, right? Especially if it’s a microprocessor company? We must be talking about Intel or ARM or Freescale or Renesas?

Keep guessing.

The responsible party is a 28-person group in Montpellier, France, overlooking the blue Mediterranean. They make a 32-bit CPU for low-power devices. It’s synthesizable. It’s licensed as IP. It’s used in a lot of mobile and handheld devices.

 

Assault on Batteries

The Internet of Things is Going to Need a Lot of Juice

by Jim Turley

I had dinner with a real venture capitalist the other evening, and lived to tell about it. I can’t tell you everything we discussed that night (wink, wink), but I can say that we had a good talk about batteries. No, really.

The VC in question is a partner at one of the primo Sand Hill Road firms and, as usual, he was the smartest guy in the room. Or at least, at my table. The conversation ranged from food, to wine, to rusty cars, to a recent acquisition by Apple. He talks very fast, uses his hands a lot, and compulsively checks his phone during lulls in the conversation. I guess if I could make (or lose) millions of dollars on one call, I’d check my messages a lot, too.

 

iWatch, You Speculate Incessantly

by Bruce Kleinman, FSVadvisors

I held out as long possible before writing anything iWatch related. The irony is that I am iFatigued with everyone iGuessing about an iUnnanounced product, and yet here I am contributing to the noise. ¡iCaramba! The proverbial last straw: I read a piece comparing Microsoft’s unannounced wearable to Apple’s unannounced wearable. OMG.

And AFTER deciding to write this piece—but before I could start—another piece appeared with the declarative headline “Here’s Everything We Know About the iWatch.” And because I cannot make up stuff this good, apparently the things we KNOW include:

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